I turn now to some major Christological passages in the epistles. Regrettably, I wrote a full treatment of Colossians 1:12-20 but have had to cut it for sake of space.
Verses 8-10: Paul states that the saving confession is that “Jesus is Lord” (kurios) and “that God raised him from the dead.” As Paul does regularly in his epistles, he refers to Jesus by the divine title “Lord” while referring to the Father by the divine title “God.” That these are both divine titles in Paul’s usage will become clear as we proceed.
Verse 11: “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’” The word “for” (Greek, gar) indicates that Paul is citing this Scripture reference from the OT as support for the statement he has just made about believing in Jesus as the risen Lord for salvation. The reference is to Isaiah 28:16, which Paul has just quoted: “They [unbelieving Israel] have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame’” (Rom. 9:32b-33). Of course, Jesus is the “stumbling stone” and “rock of offense” (Matt. 21:42-44; Mark 12:10-12; Luke 12:17-18; Acts 4:10-12; 1 Pet. 2:6-8).
Verse 12: Paul explains that belief in Jesus for salvation is for anyone who “calls on him” for salvation. This is because “the same Lord” (kurios) is Lord “of all.” In this context, the “Lord” here must be Jesus. Paul cannot be referring to this Lord as “the same” Lord if he is a different Lord than the one he just mentioned! Paul states that this same Lord, Jesus, bestows his riches (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9) “on all who call on him.”
Note that “calling on” Jesus as Lord is an act of prayer (cf. Gen. 4:26; Deut. 4:7; Ps. 145:18; Is. 55:6; Joel 2:32). Paul speaks of prayer to Jesus elsewhere (1 Cor. 1:2; 16:22; 2 Cor. 12:7-9), as does Luke (Acts 1:21-24; 7:59-60; 9:14, 21; 22:16) and John (John 14:14; 1 John 5:13-15; Rev. 22:20-21). Thus, we have support from the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation for the practice of addressing prayer to Jesus Christ (see Putting Jesus in His Place, 47-53).
This biblical practice of praying to Jesus raises severe difficulties for the Unitarian position. First, if Jesus is a different being than God, and yet Jesus hears and answers prayers, the conclusion follows that Jesus is at least functionally a second God. That is, Jesus is a supernatural or heavenly being to whom believers address prayers—including prayers for salvation and at the moment of one’s death (Acts 7:59-60).
Second, if Jesus is even an incredibly exalted man, just how is he able to hear all of these prayers? At any one moment, no doubt thousands of people are praying to him simultaneously. Jesus must be able to hear both audible and silent prayers and “process” all of the information pertaining to these prayers (including the attitudes of each heart). In order for Jesus to function as the hearer of prayer, he needs to have abilities commensurate to that responsibility—and it is difficult to see how any finite creature could have such abilities. Thus, for Jesus to be “functionally” God in regard to prayer, he must also be “ontologically” God—possessing his transcendent knowledge of millions of simultaneous prayers and the hidden attitudes of the hearts of those praying.
Verse 13: Paul backs up what he has been saying with another Scripture, Joel 2:32: “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Rom. 10:13). In context here, the Lord on whose name everyone calls for salvation must be “the same” one who is Lord “of all” and who bestows his riches of salvation on everyone who calls on him (v. 12). Since that Lord is Jesus (vv. 9-11), Paul is clearly identifying Jesus as the “Lord” of Joel 2:32—who in the Hebrew text is called YHWH, or Jehovah.
In Romans 10, then, Paul speaks about Jesus as the object of Christian faith and confession (vv. 9-11), dispenser of salvation (v. 12), recipient of prayer (vv. 12-13), and possessor of the divine name (vv. 9, 12, 13). The cumulative effect is to identify Jesus as Jehovah, the God to whom the OT teaches all people must turn in prayer for salvation (Joel 2:32).
1 Corinthians 8:4-6
According to Paul, the person who “loves God” knows that “there is no God but one” (1 Cor. 8:3, 4). These statements clearly echoes the Shema (“The LORD our God, the LORD [is] one; and you shall love the LORD your God…,” Deut. 6:4-5), the traditional confession of Judaism. The references to loving God and believing that God is one in such close conjunction eliminate any reasonable doubt that Paul is drawing here on the Shema. Given this immediate context in verses 3-4, there should be no question about whether verse 6 also alludes to the Shema. The confession “to us there is but one God, the Father” picks up the same point already made in verse 4, “there is no God but one.” The question is whether the words “one Lord” in the second part of verse 6 continue that allusion to the Shema. Several considerations converge to show that they do.
1. The transitional verse 5, which bridges Paul’s two allusions to the Shema in verses 4 and 6, shows that Paul is using “God” and “Lord” as synonyms: “For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords,’ to us there is one God…and one Lord….” The “so-called gods” encompass all of the objects of wrongful religious devotion of the Gentiles, in contrast to the believing community’s devotion to only one God (verse 4), as the words “whether in heaven or on earth” underscores. In this context, the expression “many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’” simply expands on Paul’s earlier reference to those “so-called gods.” This implies that “God” and “Lord” also function as equivalent terms in verse 6.
2. Given that verses 4 and 6 clearly echo the Shema, the fact that “Lord” and “God” are both divine names in the Shema and that Paul uses the parallel expressions “one God” and “one Lord” strongly supports understanding “Lord” to represent the “Lord” of the Shema. In the Shema, the word “one” actually qualifies the noun “Lord” (Hebrew, YHWH) directly: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD [is] one” (Deut. 6:4). In a sentence that echoes the Shema, the expression “one Lord” can hardly fail to be part of that echo.
3. In the context of calling Jesus the “one Lord,” Paul also assigns him an active role in creation: “through whom are all things, and we through him.” Paul places this affirmation in tandem with a similar affirmation about the Father, “from whom are all things, and we for him.” The expression “all things” (Greek, ta panta) was a standard way of referring in Jewish literature to the totality of the creation (e.g., Gen. 1:31; Neh. 9:6; Jer. 10:16; Acts 17:25; Rom. 11:36; Eph. 1:10-11; Rev. 4:11).
Compare Romans 11:36, “For from him and through him and for him are all things.” Here Paul speaks of the Creator as the efficient cause (ek/ex, “from”), the instrumental cause (dia/di’, “through”), and the final cause or goal (eis, “for,” “toward”) of creation. In 1 Corinthians 8:6, Paul attributes these three causal functions to both the Father and Jesus Christ; specifically, he associates ek and eis with the Father and dia with Christ. Thus, minimally, 1 Corinthians 8:6 affirms that Jesus Christ is the instrumental cause of creation. This affirmation presupposes the preexistence of Christ (evident elsewhere in the same epistle, e.g., 1 Cor. 10:4, 9; cf. Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 8:9; Gal. 4:4-6; Phil. 2:6-7; Col. 1:16-17) and attributes to Christ an active role in the divine work of creation. This is highly significant, since in Paul’s Jewish theology, the Lord God is the sole creator and maker of all things (e.g., Gen. 1:1, 31; Ps. 102:25-27; Is. 44:24; Acts 17:24; Rev. 4:11).
4. Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul’s use of “Lord” for Jesus repeatedly alludes to OT texts and motifs involving the divine name YHWH. Christians, according to Paul, are “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). The OT taught that one should “call on the name of the Lord” YHWH (e.g., Joel 2:32, cf. Rom. 10:13). A few verses later, Paul says that Christians hope to be found “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8), whereas the OT spoke of judgment day as “the day of the Lord [YHWH]” (e.g., Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31). The allusion to “the day of the Lord” (cf. Joel 2:31) in the same context as “calling on the name of the Lord” (cf. Joel 2:32) makes it all the more likely that Paul’s language alludes directly to Joel. Paul refers to this future day of the Lord Jesus in several other epistles (2 Cor. 1:14; Phil. 1:6, 10; 2:16; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Thess. 2:1-2; 2 Tim. 1:18).
Such allusions continue throughout the epistle (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:31, cf. Jer. 9:23-24; 1 Cor. 2:16, cf. Is. 40:13; 1 Cor. 6:11, cf. Is. 45:23; 1 Cor. 10:20-22, cf. Deut. 32:21; Mal. 1:7, 12). At the end of the epistle, Paul writes: “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed. Maranatha. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you” (1 Cor. 16:22-23). In this short space of words, Paul calls for those who do not love the Lord to be cursed, prays to the Lord to come, and attributes divine grace or favor to the Lord Jesus. The importance attached to loving the Lord (Jesus) here is especially striking in view of the fact that the Shema includes a command to “love the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:4-5).
When we take into consideration all of these allusions to YHWH texts in Paul’s references to Jesus as “Lord” throughout 1 Corinthians, the conclusion that “one Lord” in 8:6 refers to Jesus as possessing the divine name YHWH seems inescapable.
Verses 3-4: The key to the proper interpretation of Philippians 2:6-11 is to understand it in the context of Paul’s pastoral concern stated here. Paul urges the Philippian believers to regard others humbly as more important than themselves, to look out not just for their own interests but also for the interests of others. The presupposition here is that the Philippians are all in fact equal, but each is to act humbly as if others are more important than he or she is.
Verse 5: Paul continues this exhortation by directing the Philippians to have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. In other words, Christ is going to set the example of someone who humbly regards another as more important than himself, who treats someone else (to whom he is actually equal) as if he were more important.
Verse 6: Now Paul elaborates on how Christ set that example. Christ existed in God’s form and yet did not consider equality with God harpagmon (a notoriously difficult word). Here Paul says that Christ set the example for us in the way that he humbled himself toward God. Now remember, the example Paul is saying Christ modeled for us is the way we should treat others who are in fact our equals, by humbly treating them as more important than ourselves. This context confirms that Paul is not denying that Christ was equal with God. What sort of example of someone treating an equal as more important would it be for Christ to submit to God, as any creature should, if Christ was just a creature? No, Paul means that Christ was in fact equal to God but did not insist on being treated as such (either by clinging to his equality with God, as some older exegetes argued, or by seeking to take advantage of it, as many modern exegetes think; either view of harpagmon fits the context). His equality with God is related here to his existence in the form of God. This may mean that Christ possessed the glorious nature of God or that Christ was robed in God’s glorious appearance or outward display (exegetes have understood “form of God” in both ways). Either way, Paul here presupposes that Christ preexisted in heaven with God (the Father) in the divine form.
Verse 7a: Christ did not demand that God (the Father) treat him as an equal; instead, Christ “emptied himself.” This is an idiom synonymous with the parallel expression “humbled himself” later in the verse. It does not mean that he emptied himself of something, as if he had some specific thing and then got rid of it. The KJV translation, “made himself of no reputation,” is actually a nice paraphrase. It means that Christ acted as if his divine status was unimportant.
Paul tells us exactly how Christ “emptied himself”: he did so by taking on something he didn’t have before: “the form of a servant, becoming in the likeness of human beings.” The expression “form of a servant” is parallel to “form of God” and means either that Christ took on the lowly nature of one of God’s created servants (if “form of God” means the divine nature) or that Christ took on the humble outward appearance of a servant (if “form of God” means the divine appearance). Again, Paul’s line of thought here presupposes that Christ existed in heaven before becoming a man. A human being cannot humble himself to become a human being because that is what he already and originally is. What Paul says here, then, must refer to Christ’s decision before the Incarnation to become a human being.
Verse 7b-8: Having become a human being, Christ found himself in outward form, appearance, or likeness (schema) as a man. This seeming redundancy emphasizes the full indignity that Christ suffered, of coming not in divine blazing glory (which he partially revealed only once for a short time to a few disciples in the Transfiguration) but in outward shape and appearance as just a regular guy (not even a halo!). But Jesus wasn’t done “putting himself down”; he humbled himself further by becoming God’s obedient servant, the “servant of the LORD” of Isaiah 53, and dying the most gut-wrenching, awful, humiliating death ever devised, death on a cross.
Verse 9a: Having become a human being, Christ had humbled himself as God’s servant and thus placed himself in a position of dependence on God for whatever place might be given to him. This is why God needed to exalt Christ and give him the divine name above every name. Paul is not saying that God took a mere man and exalted him to a position of divine authority. Christ was a divine person existing in heaven with God and sharing his divine status prior to humbling himself to become a man and die on the cross (vv. 5-8). Rather, God the Father “super-exalted” his self-abased incarnate Son above the whole cosmos. The term that Paul uses here appears only once in the Greek OT, referring to the proper exaltation of the LORD God “above all gods” (cf. Ps. 97:9). Paul’s use of this word, once again, treats Jesus Christ as identical to God.
Verse 9b-11a: Paul says that God gave Christ “the name above every name.” In no sense did God bestow on Christ the name “Jesus” at his resurrection and exaltation; this was Christ’s given, public name even during his humble life and death on earth. “The name above every name,” then, in this context almost certainly is not the name “Jesus.” In context, it is the name “Lord” in verse 11, that “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Here “Lord” represents the divine name YHWH (Jehovah) in the OT, a point confirmed by Paul’s applying words from Isaiah 45:23 to Jesus here in verses 10-11a. Since Christ preexisted in God’s form and with God’s status before the Incarnation (vv. 5-6), presumably he also had the name YHWH at that time, but the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, was not yet known to the world as YHWH (LORD). Thus, God quite properly exalted his Son by publicly naming him with his own name YHWH/LORD, letting the world know that the man Christ Jesus was not merely a man but was indeed LORD.
Verse 11b: This act of exalting his incarnate Son in no way detracts from the glory of the Father, but in fact everything that Christ did, from humbling himself to become a man to dying on the cross to rising from the dead to ruling as LORD over all creation was to bring glory to God the Father. This brings us back to the point from which Paul began: Christ did not seek merely his own interests, but sought the interests of his Father; though they were in reality equal, Christ treated the Father as more important than himself, doing everything he did to bring God the Father glory.
The whole passage, then, reveals Christ to be eternal God by nature and rightful status, yet choosing to come into this world as a human being, as the servant of God, and die a shameful death, in order to bring glory to God the Father through the redemption of the cross. Christ’s self-abasing, self-humbling acts in relation to the Father are the ultimate example of treating others, who by right are our equals, as more important than we are.
The writer of Hebrews (like most scholars, I do not think he was Paul) opens his work with a series of affirmations about the Son (verses 1-4). He then follows up these affirmations (what scholars call the exordium) with a catena of seven biblical passages that support and explain what he means.
Those who do not believe that Jesus Christ is truly God argue that in their OT contexts the writer’s proof texts could not have been actually referring to the Messiah as God. For example, many have argued that the quotation of Psalm 45:6-7 in Hebrews 1:8-9 cannot mean that the Messiah is actually God, because the Israelite king to whom the Psalm originally referred obviously was not God. They contend on this basis that either we must translate the text differently (e.g., “God is your throne”), which is really not feasible, or that if the Davidic king is called “God” it must be in some lesser sense. Perhaps the text calls him “God” in a representative sense. After all, the Bible sometimes calls angels “gods,” presumably in such a lesser sense.
There are at least three difficulties for this line of interpretation. First, the writer insists that the things these OT texts say about the Messiah are things that God never said about any angel (vv. 4-5, 13). Thus, the writer absolutely precludes the idea that he is speaking of the Messiah as “God” in the same sense or significance as when other texts refer to angels as “gods.”
Second, the OT texts that the writer quotes say things that never really applied to any earthly, merely human Israelite king of the Davidic dynasty. Not one of the proof texts in the catena in Hebrews 1 applied in reality to the Davidic king. No Davidic king ruled over all the nations (Ps. 2:8), received worship from all the angels (Ps. 97:7), ruled forever (Ps. 45:6), made the universe (Ps. 102:25-27), or sat at God’s right hand as king and priest forever (Ps. 110:1, 4). The Psalms look forward to the coming of the Messiah, and often speak of the earthly, merely human Davidic king as a type of the Messiah—a figure who anticipates the reality that was to come, realized in Jesus. In effect, at least some of the things that the Psalms say in reference to the contemporary rulers in Jerusalem are really not directly about David or his dynastic heirs in the first half of the first millennium BC. Those figures rather functioned as types of the Messiah, and some of what the texts say did not apply directly to those men but do apply to the Messiah. The apostle Peter established this hermeneutical approach to the Psalms in the first Christian sermon, when he argued that Psalm 16:8-11 was really not about David (the author) but about his descendant the Messiah (Acts 2:25-31).
Third, at least three of the Psalms citations in the catena did not refer in any way to the earthly Davidic king, but clearly in context referred to the LORD God (Heb. 1:6, quoting either Ps. 97:7 or Deut. 32:43; Heb. 1:7, quoting Ps. 104:4; Heb. 1:10-12, quoting Ps. 102:25-27). The writer of Hebrews includes these texts in his catena of proof texts because in their broader contexts they speak of the full establishment of God’s kingdom, which the Messiah accomplishes (Ps. 97:1-9; 102:18-22; 104:310-35). Nevertheless, he cites statements in these texts that in their original contexts refer quite explicitly to God.
Now with these preliminary observations in place, I will offer a commentary on the passage.
Verses 1-2: The writer states that God appointed the Son “the heir of all things”; that is, the Son is to receive the honor and status due him as the primary owner of God’s estate (creation, “all things”). The writer also tells us that God created the world through the Son, a statement that presupposes that the Son existed prior to creation. This fits perfectly, of course, with God designating his Son as his primary “heir” prior to the creation of the world.
Verse 3a: The writer now describes the Son as perfectly reflecting or expressing the glorious nature of God. The Son is exactly like his Father. Only someone who is divine by nature could do what this Son does: “he upholds all things by the word of his power.” The writer is not saying that God the Father upholds all things, but that the Son does so—and not by the powerful word of his Father, but by his own powerful word.
Verse 3b: The writer affirms that the Son, “having made purification for sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” He does not mean that the Son took a seat on a separate throne to the right of God’s, but that he sat down on God’s very throne. In the imagery of the furnishings of the tabernacle and sanctuary, the Ark of the Covenant represented the throne of God, and Hebrews pictures Jesus sitting next to the Majesty. Thus, the best translation of Hebrews 8:1 is that he sat down “on the right-hand side of the throne of the Majesty on high” (similarly at 12:1; see Martin Hengel, Studies in Early Christology, 142, 149). The conventional Jewish imagery of God’s throne pictures it raised far above the heads of all those present in the throne room (e.g., Is. 6:1; Ezek. 1:26), so that anyone seated at his right hand is in effect placed “on the same level” as God.
Verse 4: The writer concludes that the Son had become “as much better than the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” Some people understand this verse to mean that at some point in Jesus’ human life—perhaps his conception or ascension—he obtained this “more excellent” name for the first time. However, what the writer says is that the Son inherited his name, not that he obtained it. What we have already read up to this point all would seem to indicate that he “inherited” his name when he was designated the “heir of all things,” which in context is prior to the creation of the world (v. 2). But the Son has in some sense become “better than the angels,” specifically as a result of his work in making purification of sins and sitting on the divine throne to bring that work to completion (v. 3). This description of the Son as “better,” then, has to do with his redemptive work of providing a “better hope” in a “better covenant” with “better promises” (Heb. 7:19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 12:24). The superiority or extent to which the Son proves to be “better” matches the superiority of the name that he “inherited” in comparison even with that of the angels.
Verse 5: The writer now begins his catena of Scripture quotations in support of his affirmations about the Son. The writer assigns him ever more exclusive, exalted names, until at last he calls him “Lord” (in a context where this means YHWH, the divine name). Thus, “Firstborn” is more exclusive and specific an honorific than “Son”; “God” is higher still; and then finally “Lord” (=YHWH) is as high a name as anyone can have (cf. Phil. 2:9-11). We may say, then, either that “the” name that he has is the divine name (Lord), or that by “name” the writer means the identity or status that the Son has and that all of the “names” he goes on to mention reveal.
Verse 6: The writer states that when “he” (God) brings the Firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” As I have already pointed out, there are two OT texts that might stand behind this quotation, but either way the contexts of those texts has to do with the worship due to the LORD God himself. It might make some sense to speak of human beings “worshipping” a creaturely representative of God, on the hypothesis that humans do not have direct access to God, but this will not explain why angels worship the Son.
Verse 7: The quotation from Psalm 104:4 describes the created heavenly beings as angels and messengers, terms that emphasize their comparatively humble rank compared to the Firstborn Son. The description of the angels as “winds” and “flame of fire” also emphasizes in this context just how insubstantial and changeable the angels are. The author will then go on to contrast those characteristics with those of the Son, especially in verses 10-12.
Verses 8-9: The quotation from Psalm 45:6-7 assigns yet another exalted name to the Son, the title “God,” understood (as I have explained) in a sense other than and superior to any sense in which the OT might refer to angels as “gods.” The words “Your throne, O God” confirm the point made earlier that the Son sits on the throne of God. The fact that his throne “is forever and ever” simply adds further confirmation that the Son will rule as God, since of course God’s kingdom rule is eternal. In his perfect, sinless human life, the Son qualified himself to rule over the rest of humanity as the King-Priest of the new creation (a theme that will dominate much of the rest of the book).
Verses 10-12: The names that the writer assigns to the Son reach a climax with the name “Lord,” which he has in the context of a quotation that contrasts the eternal, unchanging nature of the Creator with the temporal, changeable, perishing nature of everything in the creation. There really can be no question in the context of this catena that this quotation of Psalm 102:25-27 refers to the Son. It is he, who is the “Lord,” who “in the beginning laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the works of [his] hands.” The language here is standard biblical rhetoric for God’s work as Creator (e.g., Job 38:4; Ps. 8:3, 6; Is. 40:12, 21; 64:8). Thus, Hebrews 1:10 explicitly credits the Son with actually making the universe. As the maker of all things, the Son also sustains their existence (see verse 3) until such time as he chooses to allow them to be changed or perish—things that will never happen to him. In this context, and in keeping with the meaning of Psalm 102 itself, the “Lord” here is YHWH, the LORD God, maker of heaven and earth.
Verse 13: The writer finishes his catena of proof texts with Psalm 110:1, confirming the statement in his exordium that the Son took his seat at God’s right hand. Ironically, some people claim that Psalm 110:1 proves that the Son is less than God, but such an argument must ignore the way the writer situates Psalm 110:1 in his argument. The Son has God’s names, sits on God’s throne, receives worship from God’s most glorious creatures, performs God’s works, and will rule over God’s kingdom forever and ever. Frankly, if this is not the LORD God himself, it is a second God, and we must conclude that the writer is teaching ditheism.
The NT writings repeatedly speak of the Lord Jesus Christ in the most exalted terms possible. They frequently call him “Lord” in contexts that equate him with the LORD (YHWH), the God of Israel. They occasionally call him “God,” again in contexts where this must have its absolute, usual meaning in Jewish usage. Beyond titles or names, the NT speaks of Jesus as God in several ways. Jesus does what God does: he makes and sustains the universe and rules forever from God’s throne over the entirety of creation, all of which belongs to him. Jesus also receives the honors that God receives: he receives worship from both humans and angels and is the proper recipient of prayer. Jesus can do what God does, and he deserves the honors God does, because he is what God is: eternal, uncreated, transcendent deity. When we consider the way these various lines of evidence converge, with multiple statements from throughout the NT, the conclusion that does this evidence justice is that the NT does indeed teach that Jesus is God.